President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy aren’t friends.
Biden’s advisers describe the relationship in bland but respectful terms like “cordial” and “professional.” The president on Tuesday called McCarthy a “decent man” and the speaker said after a November meeting between Biden and congressional leaders he “can work with anybody.”
For two politicians defined by, and elevated because of, their close attention to personal relationships, the anodyne nature of the descriptions is telling in the lead up to their high stakes private meeting in the Oval Office.
And, after weeks of both sides attempting to set the conditions for a battle between two diametrically opposed pathways to raising the debt ceiling, expectations for the meeting are low.
“This is the first round of about 20,” one House Democrat told CNN of the months leading up to the June deadline to raise the debt ceiling. “Settle in.”
Even the meeting itself, which White House officials viewed as a traditional sit down at the start of a new Congress and McCarthy calls the opening of talks on the debt limit, has been subject to political wrangling and skirmishes.
They are politicians from different parties, of different generations, raised on opposite sides of the country.
One developed his political acumen in the plodding and collegial Senate. The other in the brisk and often bare-knuckle House. Both overcame setbacks, doubts and an endless number of hurdles to reach the peak of their careers where they now find themselves circling one another like boxers in the ring, sizing up the dynamics of a relationship that will help define the next two years.
First, however, a president and a speaker must navigate a June deadline to raise the debt ceiling with a potentially catastrophic economic crisis looming if they fail – and little in the form of tangible common ground presenting an obvious a path forward.
Biden has remained steadfast that he will not negotiate on the issue, and plans to ask McCarthy to commit to avoiding brinksmanship over the debt limit, citing former Republican presidents and congressional leaders. Once that is taken off the table, the president will tell McCarthy that he is willing to engage in talks about reducing the US debt.
But he’ll demand a House Republican proposal first – something White House officials are keenly aware would carry significant political value for Democrats and have the potential for splitting the Republican conference.
“Show me your budget, I’ll show you mine,” Biden has said repeatedly this week when asked what his message to McCarthy would be during the meeting.
McCarthy has repeatedly framed Biden as unreasonable – and held to the view that refusing talks entirely isn’t a sustainable position.
“It’s irresponsible if the leader of the free world would say he’s not going to negotiate. I hope that’s just staff and not him,” McCarthy said. “I think the most responsible thing to do is that we sit down – we’ve got the time period between now and June – and we find places that we could find savings for the American public.”
In early 2015, Joe Biden extended an invitation for Kevin McCarthy to come to his house for a private meeting in the hopes of finding common ground.
The two weren’t close, and Biden was cognizant of the amount of time he’d spent building ties with McCarthy’s predecessor. But the vice president viewed a relationship with the second-ranked member of the House as a critical part of his portfolio.
“I had worked hard to develop a relationship with Majority Leader Eric Cantor, but now that Eric had lost his seat, I had to start over with Kevin McCarthy,” Biden wrote in his 2017 memoir.
Eight years after Biden invited McCarthy to the Naval Observatory for breakfast, the speaker will once again be a guest in Biden’s home. Eight years later, a midterm election has once again thrust the California Republican to a critical place in Biden’s portfolio.
The areas of common ground appear even less clear than they did then, even as the stakes have been raised dramatically.
McCarthy points to Biden’s negotiation skills and deal making on the debt limit and budget issues as vice president as evidence his demands have precedent.
White House advisers point to that period as one of self-inflicted turmoil that pushed the US economy to the brink of disaster, citing it as evidence that there should be no negotiation at all. They’re happy to list off the times McCarthy voted to raise or suspend the debt ceiling when a Republican was in the White House as well.
Despite the breakfasts during the last Democratic administration, the two have had minimal interaction since Biden became president.
In part, that’s due to the role of the House minority leader at a moment Democrats controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress, aides said. Democrats could move bills through the chamber without Republicans, unlike the Senate, where Biden’s major bipartisan legislative proposals required GOP votes.
Biden also has a long-standing and productive relationship with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who appeared with him at an event celebrating the bipartisan infrastructure law in Kentucky last month.
“He’s a man of his word,” Biden said of McConnell at the event. “When he gives you his word, you can take it to the bank; you can count on it. And he’s willing to find common ground to get things done for the country.”
Privately, however, White House officials acknowledge McCarthy’s close ties to former President Donald Trump – and his decision to not only stick by him but help resurrect his standing in the Republican Party in the weeks after the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol is not something Biden would ignore.
Asked about McCarthy after the midterm elections, Biden replied: “I think he’s the Republican leader, and I haven’t had much of occasion to talk to him.”
“But I will be talking to him,” he added, making clear what officials stress: That he will, as is Biden’s way, work with McCarthy where there are areas of common ground.
In the months since the midterm elections, Biden has spoken twice to McCarthy by phone. They’ve met once, with the other top congressional leaders. Beyond that, their exchanges have mostly played out through the press, aides or, in McCarthy’s case, on Twitter.
To the extent White House officials experienced a level of schadenfreude in the initial stages of McCarthy’s marathon effort to secure the Republican votes to be speaker, it shifted sharply to a palpable sense of bewilderment by the time McCarthy had suffered through 14 failed votes.
He emerged victorious on the 15th, maintaining that the protracted process would help unify a fractious conference.
“Because it took this long, now we learned how to govern,” McCarthy told reporters.
White House officials, though they went to great lengths not to weigh in on the matter, took the opposite view – one that is reflected in their approach to the debt limit where there are clear questions as to whether McCarthy can secure the votes of 218 Republicans for anything at all.
Biden appeared to allude to those questions during a Democratic National Committee fundraiser Tuesday in New York City.
“Look what he had to do,” Biden said of agreements McCarthy made with members of his caucus to lock in their support. “He had to make commitments that are just absolutely off the wall for a speaker of the House to make in terms of being able to become the leader.”
One of those commitments was tied to the debt limit. There would be no increase of the debt limit without spending cuts.
It’s a position that runs headlong into Biden’s refusal to talk about anything but a clean increase – a position White House officials maintain is not a bluff or posturing. They’ve been deeply engaged behind the scenes in preparation for the long battle ahead, keeping a close eye on House GOP legislative proposals both present and past.
McCarthy, at least for the moment, has been unmoved. When asked about Biden’s allusion to his potential weakness as speaker, McCarthy said, “Apparently, he doesn’t understand.”